Plans Nixed to Build Dump Near Joshua Tree National Park

By Gillian Flaccus
|  Friday, May 24, 2013  |  Updated 4:40 PM PDT
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Plans Nixed to Build Dump Near Joshua Tree Nat'l Park

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A Joshua tree stands in the high Mojave Desert against a twilight sky in October 2004. Plans to build a 4,000-acre landfill near the iconic national treasure died this weeks after decades of opposition.

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Decades-old plans to build a mega-landfill near Joshua Tree National Park were tossed out Friday.

Held up in litigation for the past 20 years, LA County sanitation department’s plan to build a 4,000-acre dump surrounded by the park on three sides has been opposed by desert farmers and environmentalists.

“We would have opposed this forever and I think it's a very wise decision by them,” said David Lamfrom of the National Parks Conservation Association, which opposed the deal in court for more than a decade.

The park, a national treasure known around the world for its bizarre, spindly-armed Joshua Trees, protects 501 archeological sites, 88 historic structures and 19 cultural landscapes. It is located about a three-hour drive east of Los Angeles.

Opponents argued landfill and associated train and truck traffic around the dump would wreak havoc on the delicate desert ecosystem and attract scavengers like ravens, which snack on the hatchlings of desert tortoises, a federally threatened species.

Increased recycling and new waste treatment technologies have reduced the need to open the 4,000-acre landfill on former mining land in Eagle Mountain, David Rothbart, a supervising engineer with the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, said Friday.

At capacity, plans called for 20,000 tons of garbage to be shipped to the landfill by train each day – enough to fill 375 freight cars – for a period of 117 years.

“We're elated over this and now it's really time for us to make Joshua Tree National Park whole and our community whole again and not have these projects hanging over our heads for years,” said Donna Charpied, a jojoba farmer who, along with her husband, filed the first lawsuit to stop the landfill more than two decades ago.

The park, she said, is “Southern California's best dress suit and we shouldn't put any spots on it.”

The battle over the landfill traces its roots back to the 1940s, when mining company Kaiser Steel began mining iron ore near what was then Joshua Tree National Monument as a way to feed shipbuilding and other war efforts.

Mining activity at the iron ore pits in Eagle Mountain boomed and a small village sprang up to house the workers.

By the early 1980s, however, mining activity had slowed, and Ontario-based Kaiser Ventures pitched a proposal in 1987 to turn the pits into a landfill.

The mining community, built in 1948 by the storied industrialist Henry J. Kaiser for his workers, is now one of the country's best-preserved ghost towns.

The Charpieds, and then environmental groups, joined together to fight against the landfill in litigation that lasted years. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, but it declined to hear the case.

In 2000, the Los Angeles sanitation agency entered escrow with plans to buy Eagle Mountain for $41 million from the Kaiser Ventures subsidiary Mine Reclamation Corp., which had secured rights-of-way and developed the property for use as a landfill.

Terry Cook, executive vice president and general counsel for Kaiser Ventures, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

In 2011, however, the subsidiary went into bankruptcy and the regional garbage agency began to reassess its needs based on increased recycling and new waste disposal technologies.

The agency is aiming for a 75 percent recycling rate, greatly reducing its need for new mega-dumps. The district serves 5.4 million people over 815 square miles.

“Things have changed in LA County,” said Rothbart. “There isn't this crisis as far as landfill capacity that there was in 2000.”

Lamfrom, the environmentalist, said the turbulent history of the desert wilderness nearly 200 miles east of Los Angeles encapsulates the changing priorities of the nation over a span of decades.

Once the seat of a busy mine to fuel the war effort and then a would-be landfill as LA's population boomed, the region is now increasingly coveted as a tourist magnet and a hot spot for the booming solar energy industry.

With two solar plants going up within view of the proposed dump site, those changing economic priorities ultimately played a role in the landfill's demise, Lamfrom believes.

“I think people realized it was no longer really needed and no longer fit in this part of the world,” he said.

“There's so much going on in the California desert. I keep telling people it's the center of the universe, but they don't believe me.”

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